Claes Oldenburg: Drawings and Prints
Claes Oldenburg: Proposals for Monuments and Buildings 1965-69
Store Days: Documents from The Store (1961) and Ray Gun Theater (1962)
Claes Oldenburg is, in several important respects, the most appealing artist to have appeared on the New York scene in the last decade. Beside the increasingly constricted concerns of the abstractionists, his zany sculptures and offbeat designs for monuments offer a robust engagement with the world we actually encounter beyond the perimeter of the art gallery, the museum, and the millionaire’s fancy pad. There is a comic energy in the work that suggests that art, contrary to what we had been led to believe, has not lost its capacity to intervene in the affairs of life—to criticize, make jokes, sentimentalize, exalt, and deplore. In Oldenburg’s art, the emotions of the homme moyen sensual rarely, if ever, defer to the interests of the detached visual technician intent upon distilling from the plethora of workaday sensation some parsimonious aesthetic essence. There is an openness to experience, to the social environment, and to the mind’s free-wheeling tendency to proliferate fantasy in the face of these that, in the context of so much bloodless formalism, would be liberating even if the results were not so amusing.
But amusing Oldenburg certainly is, and it is essential to his art that it be amusing. (Whether it remains amusing is another question.) Modern art has been, more often than not, a solemn enterprise, and among the self-appointed guardians of modernist purity in the 1960s, this tradition of solemnity has been carried to almost unimaginable extremes of aridity, humorlessness, and farcical self-importance. Oldenburg’s art amuses precisely because it mocks this solemnity with such devastating and insouciant authority.
Not only has Oldenburg upset conventional expectations (including those of “advanced” taste) about the way objects and the environment are to be treated in a work of art, but he effectively alters the tone in which the artist speaks to the public. He plays the clown. At the Museum of Modern Art’s large retrospective exhibition of Oldenburg’s work this fall, the faces in the crowds of spectators were happy faces—smiling, relaxed, often actually laughing. At the very altar of high artistic seriousness, Oldenburg invited the crowd to abandon its pieties and have a good time, and the crowd responded with enthusiasm.
All of this—the openness, the clowning, the energy, and the cheerful embrace of the mundane—is, as I say, very appealing. Yet the exhibition itself was a lightweight affair. Oldenburg’s comic talents were abundantly in evidence wherever one turned, and the jokes had not noticeably staled. But as soon as one got past the early work and really examined the “major” pieces of the last seven years, the jokes tended to reduce themselves to a single joke—indeed, to something uncomfortably resembling a formula. The small made large, the hard made soft, the trivial transformed into the monumental: the virtuoso changes wrung on these basic strategies could not conceal a certain poverty of conception. Between the amusing giant hamburger (seven feet in diameter) and giant piece of cake (nine feet …